India’s bilateral relationship with Australia has undergone a sea change since the Cold War and the aftermath of India’s nuclear tests in 1998. Successive Australian and Indian administrations have since given shape to what may emerge soon as a key economic and security partnership in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the Asia-Pacific — against the backdrop of a rising China, with its growing assertiveness on territorial disputes, and an uncertain US policy in the region. The current governments in both countries appear willing to go the extra mile. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vigorous approach to Asia is matched by his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott’s enthusiasm for partnership with India. Abbott’s visit to India in September affirmed the turnaround in ties, with the breakthrough on civil nuclear cooperation. Modi’s visit, overlapping with the G-20 summit in Brisbane, has been the first trip by an Indian PM in 28 years.
Modi’s address to Australia’s parliament, wherein he described the two countries as “foremost partners” in the Asia-Pacific and the IOR, emphasised trade, investment and maritime security cooperation, and offered Australia opportunities in India’s agriculture, mining, infrastructure, manufacturing, energy and other sectors. For now, however, bilateral trade sits at a modest annual $15 billion, reminding New Delhi and Canberra of work to be done. This is so especially when Australia-China trade is $150bn and the two have just signed a comprehensive free trade deal. Modi and Abbott must push ahead if India is to have a similar deal with Australia by the targeted 2015. For Delhi, it would also mean delivering on much promised internal reform.
Given the bilateral enthusiasm for expanding the circle of engagement, Delhi and Canberra must initiate a joint dialogue with Indonesia and also pull Japan in to bulwark the region against the vicissitudes of China-US relations. Modi’s outreach to the Indian diaspora, as evidenced by his addresses at Madison Square Garden in New York or at Allphones Arena in Sydney, has brought Indian communities abroad to the forefront of foreign policy. This promises to reverse Delhi’s past diffidence and reticence and activates the diaspora for mobilising resources and opinion.